Public-Private Partnerships: The future of girls’ education in Pakistan?

The Merged Areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in Pakistan have among the lowest enrollment rates globally. While public-private partnership (PPP) initiatives have the potential to increase the supply of schools, more effort is needed to increase demand.


The Covid-19 pandemic has made an already-stretched and inadequate public education system in Pakistan worse. Access to quality and equitable education remains low. This is especially true in the Merged Areas, formerly called the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), that were merged with the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018. This tribal region consisting of seven districts, located next to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, has faced decades of conflict, terrorism, military operations and forced displacements that has led to a serious learning gap.

Data from before the pandemic suggest that 57% of children in the Merged Areas were not attending schools. Of those enrolled, 73% dropped out by the time they reach Grade 5. Girls are particularly disadvantaged, as only 56 girls enrolled for every 100 boys in the tribal areas, compared to 77 girls for every 100 boys in the settled districts. Academic results show that scores of students from the Merged Areas were among the lowest in the country in reading (for both English and Urdu/Pashto), and the pandemic will have only exacerbated these pre-existing problems.

In part, this is due to supply-side issues: school infrastructure is poor with more than 50% of girls’ schools lacking basic facilities such as toilets, water, or electricity. Governance challenges and poor teaching quality make education delivery even more complex. On the demand side, poverty and parental attitudes to girls education are the leading causes of girls not attending schools or dropping out.

How can public-private partnerships help?

Public-private partnerships, in which the state works with private, often non-profit organisations to build and manage schools, may alleviate the supply-side challenges by improving teaching quality, and increasing access to learning. Evaluations of PPP models from developing countries and their impact suggests that such programmes led to increases in enrolment and improvements in school infrastructure. These results have been consistent with findings from the implementation of such models elsewhere in Pakistan.

However, a PPP initiative may require more than simply constructing and managing a school. To create a demand for education and increase enrollment in such context, it is especially important to work closely with community leaders who can influence parental attitudes. Countries such as India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan successfully increased both the access to education and the quality provided by using community-based initiatives to deliver local educational services. Small-scale community-based schooling models implemented in the socially conservative district of Diamer, and fragile district of Mohmand (located in the Merged Areas) in Pakistan, led to an increase in enrollment, especially for girls, by 75% and 51% respectively. PPP models allow the flexibility to adopt solutions that move away from the mainstream discourse, such as social mobilisation through community structures.

What can we learn from these examples?

PPP models and their adaptability to address gendered barriers provide us with three important lessons for improving girls’ education in Merged Areas:

  • Engage with community, religious, and political leaders through Parent-Teacher Councils (PTCs) and Jirgas (a traditional assembly of tribal leaders) that can specifically address barriers hindering girls’ enrolment. Community-based schools in Balochistan employing such an approach tripled their enrolment of girls in junior secondary schools.
  • Hire school staff from the local community, especially female teachers at the primary level, as local female teachers are relatively more trusted by the communities than outsiders. The teachers might initially be less qualified, but they can be trained during their service. The education department can train some local trainers who can subsequently train other teachers on-site.
  • Build girls’ schools (even if smaller) that are located closer to the communities to reduce transport issues for girls. In a study of school life in Ghana, schools were set up with support from communities and within five years this model had spread to 767 communities with 36,000 pupils, 43% of which were girls.

How could Pakistan benefit from PPPs?

The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been keen to implement innovative and alternative solutions to cater to the educational needs of the region, but tailored PPP models have yet to be implemented at scale. The education sector in Pakistan has been a hub for educational experiments with new products being launched from time to time but the context of Merged Areas is complex. Instead of waiting for the ‘next big thing’, it might be worthwhile to learn lessons from and adapt what has worked in similar fragile contexts. PPPs offer the flexibility to incorporate community-supported education programmes and have the capability to match the scale of the public sector. The model has the potential to offer responsive and cost-effective learning for students, especially girls.

About the author:

Hina Khan is an education consultant for Oxford Policy Management and a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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